The second round: Who has the edge?
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The Penguins averaged a league-best four goals a game in the opening round, and only one of those came from a defenseman. They had a nicely diversified attack, with nine forwards getting a goal, with Petr Sykora the only one to ring up as many as three. Coach Michel Therrien has the luxury of being able to deploy two lines that are a clear and present danger to generate a goal on every shift, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin providing a 1-2 punch down the middle that has few, if any, equals. Marian Hossa, acquired to give Crosby a quality goal-scoring winger, seems to be settling in on his right side. While the Crosbys and Malkins and Ryan Malone have commanded much of the attention in recent days, third- and fourth-liners such as Jarkko Ruutu, Max Talbot, Jordan Staal and Gary Roberts -- if his groin injury doesn't impede him -- could play pivotal roles. -- Slight edge, Penguins
Defense This unit was regarded as one of their most glaring soft spots for much of the season, but has developed into a solid group with three balanced pairings. Acquiring Hal Gill at the trade deadline gave the defense an infusion of toughness, something that had come mostly from Brooks Orpik before that. Those two, like Rob Scuderi, focus on their own end and give Kris Letang, Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar the latitude to be active offensively. The defense has gotten better at clearing pucks and bodies from around the net, and if there is a statistic that reflects the Penguins' commitment in Round 1, it might be this: Gonchar and Whitney, whose seven-figure salaries are based on their offensive abilities, led the Penguins with eight blocked shots each. Gonchar, in fact, has been playing the best two-way hockey of his three seasons here. -- Slight edge, Penguins
In goal Marc-Andre Fleury's ability to perform well in high-stakes games was one of the Penguins' biggest question marks going into the Ottawa series. Four games later, it had become perhaps their largest exclamation point. Fleury began to shed the rap of wilting under pressure last spring, and it's pretty much a distant memory now. It's not realistic to expect him to match his personal numbers from Round 1 (1.26 GAA, .955 save percentage), but there's no good reason to suspect he'll be anything but a major asset, either. His understanding of the position is catching up with his exceptional athleticism. He should, however, be prepared to deal with considerably more traffic in, and around, his crease than he faced in the first round.
Penalty kill There is a danger in taking the Penguins' short-handed work in Round 1 at face value because of Ottawa's injury problems and other issues. But it was hard to not be impressed by what they did, particularly during the two five-on-threes they faced in Game 1. They did a good job of limiting Ottawa's shots (the Senators had a total of seven in Games 2, 3 and 4 after recording eight in the opener) and second-chance opportunities. But perhaps the Penguins' best penalty-killing move was holding down the number of times they were short-handed as the series moved along. The Senators had just four power plays during the two games in Ottawa.
Power play It says something that the Penguins' power play was the second most-efficient in the league in Round 1, converting 26.1 percent of its chances, but still hasn't come close to realizing its potential. Not with any regularity, anyway. Although Therrien continues to concentrate as much talent as possible in his No. 1 power play rather than dividing his skilled players among two roughly equal units, no one from the top group recorded more than one man-advantage goal in the Ottawa series. -- Slight edge, Penguins
Coaches Therrien, as noted many times, has made a lot of personnel moves that opened him to criticism and second-guessing, but what can't be disputed is that he got his team to exceed expectations two years in a row and did just about everything right during the Ottawa series. He might not be universally loved in the locker room, but anyone who wonders if the Penguins will play for him simply hasn't been paying attention.
Intangibles The Penguins insist that the ease with which they disposed of Ottawa has not spawned a sense of overconfidence, and their work ethic the past week seems to back that up. Still, it's in their interest to be braced for a challenge that exceeds anything the Senators presented because New York doesn't have the major injuries or off-ice melodramas with which Ottawa had to deal.
Fowards Twenty-four teams scored more regular-season goals than the 205 New York got, but the Rangers' average output of 3.8 in Round 1 was surpassed only by that of the Penguins. That's a significant stat, because it was accomplished against a defensive-minded opponent with an elite goaltender, and reflects the passion with which veterans such as Jaromir Jagr (2 goals, 6 assists vs. New Jersey) and Brendan Shanahan have been playing. Center Scott Gomez thrived against his former teammates, ringing up three goals and four assists, and Chris Drury's history of producing in pressure situations makes him someone the Penguins can't afford to overlook. Center Martin Straka has a knack for making plays when it matters most, too, as he proved during his many years with the Penguins. While there's no denying the Rangers' star power up front, New York's lesser-known forwards also have the ability to alter the course of this series. Brandon Dubinsky was outstanding in Round 1.
Defense New York's defense does not have an obvious cornerstone, like Gonchar -- although rookie Marc Staal is an all-star-in-waiting --but is fairly mobile and able to move the puck effectively, despite the fact that it sometimes can be pressured into giveaways. Former Penguin Michal Rozsival has played some of his best hockey against his old team but he, like most of his colleagues on New York's blue line, does not routinely play a physical game. That's a trait the Penguins might be able to exploit if they're willing to go to the net, hard and often. Daniel Girardi might be the most reliable member of the defense and, after appearing to run out of energy as the regular season wound down, rebounded with a strong showing against New Jersey.
In goal Henrik Lundqvist went through a difficult stretch in the middle of the season, but rebounded well enough to become just the second goalie in NHL history to record 30 or more victories in each of his first three seasons in the NHL, and to be a Vezina Trophy finalist for the third season in a row. He is big and patient and has enjoyed considerable success against the Penguins, going 12-6-3 against them. He played all eight games against them this season, compiling a 5-3 record and .916 save percentage. Lundqvist is capable of stealing a game or two, or even a series. -- Slight edge, Rangers
Penalty kill New York is efficient when playing down a man, although not as much of a threat to score then as its personnel suggests it could be. The Penguins' occasional tendency to overpass, bypassing good shots in favor of trying to set up a better one, should benefit Lundqvist because his teammates already do an excellent job of blocking shots. Pucks that don't make it to the net don't have to be stopped or turn into dangerous rebounds. That's part of the reason New York did a fairly good job limiting the damage done by the Penguins' power play in the regular season, allowing five goals in 35 short-handed situations.
Power play Although any team that can send out the likes of Jagr, Shanahan and Gomez on power plays has the potential to break a game open, New York's work with the man-advantage has been pretty ordinary. The Rangers converted 16.5 percent of their chances in the regular season, placing them in the bottom third of the league, before bumping that to 23.5 percent against the Devils. It's also worth noting that New York was productive with the man-advantage against the Penguins in 2007-08, scoring on 9 of 42 chances. Although Shanahan doesn't cover ground the way he used to, he still has a hair-trigger release and deadly accurate shot, and, when Jagr is on his game --as he has been lately -- his blend of size and skill has few equals.
Coaches Tom Renney -- with an assist from the salary cap, which broke New York's addiction to collecting the highest-priced talent available with little regard for actual team-building -- has molded the Rangers into a responsible club which plays a solid two-way game night-in and night-out. He also seems to have the respect, even admiration, of many of his players, along with a knack for keeping the egos of some of his more accomplished players under control.
Intangibles Veterans such as Jagr and Shanahan not only have experience that could pay off in a big way in what figures to be an extremely tight series, but also the incentive of taking a run at the Cup for perhaps the final time. It also has to be encouraging for the Rangers to know that they won all four games against the Penguins at Madison Square Garden this season, even though the Penguins traditionally play very well there. Then again, the Penguins won three of the four games at Mellon Arena, which will be site of Game 7 if the series goes the limit. Which it just might do.
First Published April 25, 2008 12:00 am